Sigh for the alder’s unsung greatness
AKINGFISHER has decided to rule the brook near our house and chosen a low-hanging alder branch for a throne. It sits there for ages, perfectly still, until it fixes on a target and dives, an iridescent streak into the mist-coiled water. Watching it, I’m reminded that, rather than the idealised memory of some long-ago summer, ‘halcyon days’ used to mean a period of winter weather gentle enough for these birds to set about their business.
Here in Oxford, such spells are announced by our native alder, Alnus glutinosa. Its male catkins are still weeks away from the pollen-sifting state charmingly described by the Elizabethan plantsman Henry Lyte as ‘the blowinges of Alder are long tagglets’, but they lengthen fast in these milder periods, painting the boughs with a mixture of greyish pink and liverish red, which, much as it resembles iron ore in colour, is a 24-carat assurance that spring is at hand. Meanwhile, last year’s female catkins persist, squat, blackened and desiccated, but replete with seeds that draw hosts of non-piscatory birds— hereabouts, most notably siskins, which make golden mayhem among the alder’s charcoal cones.
Together with the otters that excavate holts among its roots, these birds present a strong case for treating A. glutinosa with reverence, but it is also uniquely beautiful. No other indigenous hardwood has so pyramidal a crown and such level tiers of boughs. It deviates from this regularity only to lean gracefully towards the water that is its preference and the great source of its distinction. This is Britain’s aquatic tree, our equivalent of swamp cypress and mangrove, capable of flourishing in sodden ground and bole-deep water, thanks to its breathing bark and nitrogenfixing root nodules. It abounds in our river-run city, not only providing havens for wildlife and dallying punters, but also stabilising, containing and enriching banks and wetland. In these flood-prone times, it ought to be planted more widely elsewhere.
Also impervious to water, alder wood was thought ideal for making clogs and boat keels and erecting dwellings in otherwise unfeasible places. As Richard Surflet wrote in The Countrey Farme (1616), it was used for the foundations of buildings ‘which are laid in the rivers, fens, or other standing waters, because it never rotteth in the water, but lasteth as it were for ever’. Although its timber, alas, is not eternally imperishable, this is not quite as hyperbolic as it sounds. Much of the glory of Venice sits upon piles of alder.
Impervious to water, alder wood was ideal for making clogs and boat keels
Alnus, then, is handsome, useful and quasi-magical in its habits and habitat, yet it fares poorly in our unusually tree-loving literature. As ‘alor’, ‘aler’ and similar, it makes appearances in Old English, but none of these is exactly praising or poetic. Its prestige scarcely improves thereafter. The most positive instance that I know comes from Edmund Spenser, writing in the 1590s: ‘Keeping my sheepe amongst the cooly shade,/of the greene alders by the Mullaes shore’ (that is, along the River Awbeg, which bordered his Irish estate). This is scarcely fulsome.
Other poets merely give it a name check in lists of trees. Consider Laurence Eusden, Britain’s youngest Laureate yet, appointed in 1718 at the age of 30. If at all, he tends to be remembered for a snatch of verse, a description of a grove that he wrote five years earlier. And that is remembered only because Alexander Pope quoted it in 1728 in a treatise on how not to write poetry. Clearly a stinker in Pope’s view, its last line is ‘And to the sighing alders, alders sigh’.
Still, now that some of our finest writers are devoting themselves anew to Britain’s trees, let’s hope they’ll do something to improve the sighing alder’s standing.
As for the rest of us, we might plant Alnus more often beside lakes, rivers and in landscapes susceptible to waterlogging. The non-native grey alder (A. incana) boasts a splendid cultivar—aurea, named for its chartreuse young foliage and old-gold autumn tints, but loveliest around now when its twigs turn to sunset tones and its tagglets to coral tresses. It varies in quality: the best that I know come from Barcham Trees (www.barcham.co.uk).
Two selections of the native A. glutinosa also merit specimen or avenue planting: Laciniata, with dark, dramatically slashed leaves, and Imperialis, with foliage of filigree featheriness. That said, I find our local wild alder the most attractive of all, in its quiet unbred beauty, and so, happily, does the kingfisher these halcyon days.
Mark Griffiths is editor of the New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening
Halcyon days: a redpoll alights on a cluster of Alnus glutinosa or alder catkins